It’s 7:30 am on a Saturday morning, and I just rode my bicycle 45 minutes to get to the MJ Pachinko parlor near the Tenjin train station. Pachinko parlors like this have special event days from time to time where they crank up the machines so they’re more likely to dish out. I exchange wary glances with the other early birds lined at the sliding doors waiting for their pick of the best machines. A chilly rain falls upon us as we blow into our hands, smoke our cigarettes, and read from the latest Pachinko-Waza magazine. I jingle through my pocket for some change to buy some hot canned coffee, and a dozen pachinko balls spill to the ground. “Ah, Tom-san. Again?” one of the regulars chuckles. Yeah, you might say I’m pretty into it.
Let’s see. I played pachinko last night. The night before I was busy with work, but it was pachinko on the Playstation. The night before that, hung out with the girlfriend – we like to play pachinko together. In between English classes it’s a bite to eat and then off for a pachinko quickie. Sometimes I even miss meals. I see pachinko in my dreams –I’m often looking for the perfect machine like a surfer in search of the perfect wave.
I initially started playing pachinko when I broke my foot and couldn’t play soccer. At first pachinko parlors — these gigantic glass and neon structures resembling Superman’s fortress of solitude, billowing with second hand smoke, ear shattering sounds flooding the streets with every opening of their soundproof doors — were very intimidating to me. My girlfriend suggested we play one Sunday and when you’re bored and you’ve got a gammy leg you’ll try anything. I came out of the pachinko parlor up 80,000 yen in four hours my first time. Not a bad way to start.
My single biggest win came when I was casually playing a machine between English lessons. I found an old machine that nobody had played for a week and sat down. As soon as I sat down, it gave out a jackpot and five minutes later another. The balls were overflowing the plate, but I had to go to my lesson so I called my girlfriend on the mobile and she rushed over to save my seat. When I got back the jackpots kept coming and coming. A crowd of people stood and stared at the gaijin with the massive stack. At the end of the day, I ended up winning 160,000 yen.
Outside MJ, I’m talking to a colorful, old man on the line, and he’s giving me some pointers. With his thick Hakata-ben accent he tells me that he’s been playing pachinko for 30 years. He’s a junkie like me, and I see him here all the time. Some days he’ll have huge stacks of winnings piled up behind his seat, but every time I ask him how he’s doing he replies with that same childish grin on his face, “da-me da-me” (not good, not good).
When I’m playing pachinko other players come to me to start conversations all the time. I’ve even had store managers treat me to meals. What’s great about pachinko is that there’s a sense of community among players. Unlike Vegas the players live in your neighborhood, and unlike mahjong you don’t play against one another, so naturally you root for the other guy. Being a foreigner you feel like a celebrity in Japan but even more so at a pachinko parlor. Because of this, I’ve made a lot of native Japanese friends there. However, very few of my gaijin friends “get” my fascination with pachinko. To them it’s boring, un-hip, a game for old Japanese men which is in varying degrees both true and untrue. Yes, lots of old Japanese play pachinko but lots of young Japanese these days play it too. The ones I’ve convinced to come play with me usually go in for a 1,000 yen buy in, sit restlessly in front of a machine, lose it within five minutes, get frustrated and press to leave. What many fail to grasp is the impotant role of patience in pachinko. It’s a lot like football (soccer). It’s not like other sports where there’s constant action and high scores. In football you often have long series of inaction and find yourself yearning for something exciting to happen. But then there’s an unexpected spark, a missed tackle, a perfect lob, a burst of speed and it triggers a sequence of events — a back heel pass, a defender’s out of position, and finally in a moment of perfection the player boots it into the net.
That’s exactly how it feels to win in pachinko. You see that metal ball snake through the pegs and you’re heart starts pumping and your eyes dilate and it hits the slot and thousands of little metal balls thud into your collection plate. It all happens so fast and so unexpectedly that in the end you just sit back and smile and swim your fingers through an ocean of metal balls like sand at the beach – utterly gratified, utterly breathless, hungry for more. The doors of MJ slide open and like kids in a candy store we regulars browse the aisles for the machine we’re going to play. I check my tally card for the ones I played last week, inspect the statistics shown at the top, and squint my eyes to gauge the exact formation of pins making various mental notes. I sit down at one of the newer “Sea Story” machines which last night read: 5,328 times played, 12 payouts. Like a marathon runner, I limber up my body with a couple of stretches, and I’m off. Soon there after, I’m on a roll. Things are looking good, and the reaches, or win chances, are coming thick and fast. I get a win, but itﾕs only a normal jackpot, one box of balls, or 5,000 yen. I keep playing, but miss an almost certain win reach. I slump in my chair, and the old man pats me on the back. “Da-me da-me,” I tell him.
Note: Fukuoka Now reminds readers that pachinko and slots are games of chance. Don’t play beyond your budget for entertainment.
But wait! – There’s Pachi-Slot too!
In recent years pachinko parlors have added increasing numbers of machines without balls. These ball-less machines are similar to Western slots, or fruit machines, except that you stop the reels yourself. More popular with the younger generation as they require good hand eye coordination and more skill in general. As a result they carry the most kudos. For 1,000 yen you get fifty coins. Insert three for one play, and you usually get about 20 spins for your money. The latest machines go up to 1,999 spins before they have to pay out, so that’s about 99,000 yen. However most pay out before this figure. Check magazines for hints on hot points, special zones like between 400 and 500 where the chances of winning are high. While slots seem more expensive, they offer greater rewards, one jackpot being anywhere from 360 coins 7,000 yen, to 5,000 coins or a cool 100,000 yen.